The Red Wheelbarrow
"The Red Wheelbarrow" is a poem written by American modernist poet and physician William Carlos Williams (1883–1963). The poem was originally published without title and was designated as "XXII" as the twenty-second work in Williams' 1923 book Spring and All, a hybrid collection which incorporated alternating selections of free verse poetry and prose. It is one of Williams' most frequently anthologized poems, and considered a prime example of early twentieth-century Imagism.
Writing and publication
The pictorial style in which the poem is written owes much to the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and the precisionist style of Charles Sheeler, an American photographer-painter whom Williams met shortly before composing the poem. The poem represents an early stage in Williams' development as a poet. It focuses on the objective representation of objects, in line with the Imagist philosophy that was ten years old at the time of the poem's publication. The poem was written in a brief, haiku-like free-verse form. With regard to the inspiration for the poem, Williams wrote:
["The Red Wheelbarrow"] sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a ﬁsherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the ﬁsh. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.
When the poem was originally published in Spring and All, it was simply titled "XXII", denoting the poem's order within the book. Referring to the poem as "The Red Wheelbarrow" has been frowned upon by some critics, including Neil Easterbrook, who said that such reference gives the text "a specifically different frame" from that which Williams originally intended.
The editors of Exploring Poetry believe that the meaning of the poem and its form are intimately bound together. They state that "since the poem is composed of one sentence broken up at various intervals, it is truthful to say that 'so much depends upon' each line of the poem. This is so because the form of the poem is also its meaning." This viewpoint is also argued by Henry M. Sayre who compared the poem to the readymade artwork of Marcel Duchamp.
Peter Baker analyzed the poem in terms of theme, writing that "Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one's experience."
Kenneth Lincoln saw humor in the poem, writing "perhaps it adds up to no more than a small comic lesson in the necessity of things in themselves."
Another interpretation of this poem has to do with the centrality of machinery to the occupation of husbandry, and thereby to the well-being of the nation, which depends on farming for crops, which provides food for the population.
Notes and references
- Williams, William Carlos, "XXII", Spring and All (New York: Contact Editions / Dijon: Maurice Darantière, 1923).
- Hefferman, James A. W. (1991). "Ekphrasis and Representation". New Literary History 22 (2): 297–316. doi:10.2307/469040. JSTOR 469040.
- Cho, Hyun-Young (2003). "The Progression of William Carlos Williams’ Use of Imagery" (PDF). Writing for a Real World 4: 62–69.
- Quoted in Rizzo, Sergio (2005). "Remembering Race: Extra-poetical Contexts and the Racial Other in "The Red Wheelbarrow"". Journal of Modern Literature 29 (1): 35.
- Easterbrook, Neil (1994). ""Somehow Disturbed at the Core": Words and Things in William Carlos Williams". South Central Review 11 (3): 25–44. doi:10.2307/3190244. JSTOR 3190244.
- Hollander, John. Vision and Resonance: Two Sense of Poetic Form. Copyright © 1975 by Oxford UP.
- Exploring Poetry, Gale. © Gale Group Inc. 2001.
- Sayre, Henry. The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1983 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
- Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
- Lincoln, Kenneth.Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.